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Eyes on the Sky

By Ahren von Schnell | Photos Supplied

In recent years, interest in citizen astronomy and star gazing has experienced a bit of a renaissance. It seems to be a perpetual headline that the James Webb telescope has discovered some new and fascinating interstellar object that enriches our understanding of the universe or our place in it. Topics ranging from the terraforming of Mars, to deep space travel, to exoplanets have all become part of the mainstream public discourse.

These discoveries have electrified interest in STEAM organizations like the Adirondack Sky Center & Observatory in Tupper Lake. Drawing thousands of visitors each year, eager to see first-hand the celestial vistas and phenomena that inspired their trek to the Adirondack wilderness, the Sky Center is helping to open new horizons of discovery for all who are interested.

As such, the Adirondack Sky Center & Observatory acts as an anchor in the North Country’s nature-based tourism industry. These visitors understand that the Adirondack Park is prized for its large swathes of unmarred wilderness. Often from large urban areas, they come seeking a more unitive experience with nature that is difficult to attain back home.

Because of the remoteness of the landscape, much of it blanketed in deep darkness at night and with very little light pollution, it lends itself to near optimal conditions necessary for stargazing. Because of this, in 2004 the local astronomy club worked to incorporate the Adirondack Public Observatory as a not-for-profit organization.

Initially, their work was focused on holding talks within the community to assist fledgling hobbyist astronomers in becoming familiar with the basics stargazing. They also began hosting events to raise funds for the construction of a roll off roof observatory. It wasn’t long before their efforts gathered momentum and the support of Carol Levy, a local summer resident, amateur astronomer and philanthropist, who spearheaded the drive to raise the capital for construction of the new facility. The observatory opened its doors to the public in 2013.

Since then, the staff at the observatory has developed a strong engagement with the community, including in the advancement of STEM education. The Sky Center offers a free Public Night Observing Program, which serves as an introduction for new citizen astronomers, physics of astronomy and cosmology. Attendees also experience viewing stellar objects in real time.

But this outreach isn’t just limited to those who can visit onsite – the Sky Center also provides educational development to area students through its StarLab portable planetarium, which is brought to local schools and allows programing to be offered which supplement the New York State Space Science learning standards. Additionally, classroom activities have been offered at the Adirondack Sky Center’s office, including after-school programs conducted by amateur astronomers.

As Seth McGowan, president of the Adirondack Sky Center & Observatory noted, “The Center is committed to bringing the universe down to earth for everyone.” Indeed, over 600 students have been provided StarLab programming at their schools in Franklin, Essex, Hamilton and St. Lawrence counties so far in 2023.

Finally, an annual Astrophotography Conference is presented as a four-day immersive series of sessions designed to equip both beginner and professional photographers with the skills needed to create professional night sky images.

The goal of making astronomy accessible to the general public undergirds the entire philosophy of the Sky Center – namely, as McGowan added, “A person doesn’t have to have an advanced degree in Astrophysics to be stunned at the sight of Saturn through the eyepiece of a telescope. In fact, the exact opposite may be true.”

Moreover, the Sky Center is active in engaging with new hobbyist astronomers to provide the knowledge base and support needed to be successful at citizen astronomy. Allowing visitors to experience the “wilderness above” through the dark skies of the Adirondacks, regular public observing programs are offered at no cost. In recent years, these series have been updated to leverage the latest technology in astronomy and provide an unparalleled experience for learners.

Of course, delivering high quality services incurs operating costs and, as a not-for-profit, this challenge is different than for a typical business. Organizations may find it particularly challenging to obtain and retain stable funding streams. Simultaneously, there has been a noted increase in the competition present in the non-profit sector, demanding ever greater degrees of specialization in order to distinguish one’s organization from another. Volunteers are also a critical component of a healthy not-for-profit, and recruitment and retention are a perennial demand.

Nevertheless, organizations such as the Adirondack Sky Center & Observatory work to build strong partnerships with stakeholders in government, business and other non-profits. These relationships are important for accessing and maximizing resources and impact. Finally, technological developments can improve administrative efficiency through digital platforms, data analytics and online fundraising. All of this will be important as April 8, 2024 approaches. On this day, a total solar eclipse will occur in North America and be visible from the Adirondacks. Never before has Tupper Lake been in the path of totality, and as the sole astronomy-based organization within the Adirondack Park, the Sky Center is anticipating massive crowds.

Planning for this occurrence has been years in the making and, with the hour fast approaching, the Observatory has initiated and is leading a community-wide planning group which will capitalize on the opportunity the eclipse represents for the region. These efforts will focus on a “Come Early, Stay Late!” strategy to provide engaging, fun, and positive experiences that will make visitors want to come back. It would appear the Adirondack Sky Center & Observatory (and the greater North Country) has sunny days ahead.

Adirondack Sky Center & Observatory 179 Big Wolf Road Tupper Lake, NY 12986 518 359-3538

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